Ender's Game costume designer Christine Bieselin Clark Interview: Pt 2

Costume designer Christine Bieselin Clark served as assistant costume designer for Michael Wilkinson on such incredible films as 300 and Watchmen before working as co-costume designer, developing groundbreaking techniques on Tron. This week Ender's Game, her first major feature film as sole costume designer, is released. I recently had the opportunity to talk with her about the research, technology, and process behind designing Ender's Game.

(You can read Part 1 of that interview, including more on assistant designing and her early career here.)

Tyranny of Style: With the design of Ender's Game behind you, you've found yourself sort of squarely in this action/sci-fi genre.

Christine Bieselin Clark: "I suppose so. That's what they tell me."

T/S: How does that strike you? It's such a highly conceptual genre. Is it a genre you enjoy, or feel comfortable with? 

CBC: "You know it's awfully funny because I always say I would never go see these movies unless I worked on them. But I have become very endeared to the process and to the genre and to the fan base of the genre. After doing something like 300- I mean I had no clue. I called them comic books. I didn't even know what a graphic novel was when we did 300. In your journey of what we do as designers, which is always to research and understand and explore, you unveil this genre and this fan base and this really interesting world which I knew nothing about. And from there we went on and did Watchman. So by the time I got to something like Ender's Game, I feel like I'm embraced by this community. And I feel like it's this mutual thing. I have a regard for the level of reverence these people have for these characters and these stories. For me, that is what we are, isn't it? We're storytellers. I would have never imagined that I would find myself here. And I'm happily in this world. It's not like I feel 'oh God, when can I get some petticoats? Let me out of here.' For me it's all about story and character. And if the story is brilliant and interesting and the characters are rich, and if they have to wear super-suits, that's fine. And if they don't, I'm happy to be in almost any time period as long as I feel some affinity to the story, which I definitely did with Ender's Game."


Ender's Game, Costume Designer Christine Bieselin Clark

T/S: You mention researching the genre, getting to know it. When it comes to the actual rubber meets the road costume design for Ender's Game, what was some of your research? What was some of your inspiration in the process?

CBC: "Well we had kind of two, almost three different looks we were creating. We had the real world which was Earth, where there are real people who aren't in uniforms walking around. And then you had a whole military system, and a military schooling where they had uniforms. And then you had these training suits, the Flash Suits. Three separate looks that we really had to nail. For me, the script is always the first place you go. As the designer, how am I trying to visually support the storyline? Who are these people? What are they doing? Where do they come from? And what am I trying to help the audience feel or see about them before they even open their mouths? So that's the first thing. You end up writing a bunch of adjectives and adverbs on a piece of paper- character names and coming up with feelings and thoughts that you want to convey. And then I always go to the book, or the original source material and look for descriptors that help me understand, particularly when we're dealing with something like the Flash Suits. What is the suit supposed to be doing? What is it's function, physically? Tangibly? What's the purpose of it? And then how do I also want it to feel visually to the viewer? So you've come up now with this sort of frame of what you want things to say and then I sort of go to places where I think that I can find inspiration for telling those sentences, making them come to life. God, the Internet! Oh the Internet! That's where you just start trolling Google images until your eyes pop out of your head. But you're really just looking for, whether it be a runway collection from ten years ago or motocross inspiration. We wanted to create a military of the future that encompassed the global military. So you start to do a bunch of research on that. I have so many hard drives full of folders of images that have been sourced. Sometimes you go to libraries. Sometimes you go to archives. But the majority of our work is done on the Internet now, I have to say. I have to tell you, I didn't go to the library once on Ender's Game. Not once.”

Ender's Game, Costume Designer Christine Bieselin Clark

T/S: Is there a driving thing to look to, a certain military in history, a runway show, something that really inspired Ender's Game?

CBC: "You know, I wish I could. I will say that what we did try to do and one of my points of reference as the designer was in trying to create a future that we haven't seen but yet one that didn't feel like ‘sci-fi’ in away-- that kind of Star Trekky vibe to it. It needed to feel familiar but of a different time. So, my future is an amalgamation of some iconic things from different time periods. Like I have a Peter Pan collar on Valentine and this Mandarin kind of stand collar on things. You take kind of things that our mind's eye will recognize from other times and you put them all together and you make a new time. That's sort of what we did aesthetically. And there are other reasons behind those things. You want to create an innocent childlike feeling to Valentine, so that's why you give her the Peter Pan collar. I don't really have one thing, because it was such an amalgamation, a mish-mosh of all kinds of different time periods."

T/S: I have seen some of the early images, and posted some back in July of the Flash Suits and other costumes on display at Comic Con. They look wonderful.

CBC: "I'm pretty excited about the suits, because that was, I have to say- labor of love that I can't even (laughs). To put suits like that on anyone is challenging. They're not comfortable. They're not easy to move in. But then you put them on children, on young actors. Doing stunts was a challenge.”


Ender's Game, Costume Designer Christine Bieselin Clark

T/S: Looking back on the films you've done, you've gotten comfortable with putting people in some really uncomfortable things. 

CBC: "You know, I just have to suck it up and say ‘it's part of my job.’ I mean, gosh, if some of the actors on Tron-- the stories they could tell you. (laughs) There's nothing comfortable about any of these things. The million things we do to try to make it as tolerable as possible, but when you go into a foam latex suit that has working lighting in it, that has a whole wiring harness inside of it- it's just not going to be comfortable. And I remember meeting with some of those actors in the first fittings and saying 'listen this is the road we're going to go down and just forgive me ahead of time.' And they did. I mean, Beau Garrett, who played one of the Sirens on Tron, I mean beautiful, she looks amazing! She looks so gorgeous. Unbelievable torturous, that costume. I cannot even begin, words cannot even express what torture those poor women went through. Still when I see her to this day, she's like ‘you killed me, but I looked so good!’”


T/S: You guys are inventing technologies, looking to the future. What were some of the things you encountered with Ender's Game? What were some techniques or technology that you needed to learn, figure out or invent? 

CBC: "I have to say, I think we went a little crazy on Tron with some technologies, and that sort of influenced some of my decisions on Ender's even to pull back a little bit. Because here's the deal, on Tron those suits that they wear, the majority of the characters, we output those suits. Those are 3D printed in a way. In 3D printing you're actually growing things, but we used CNC (Computer Numerical Cutting). So normally what you do is, for instance on Watchmen- we digitally scanned an actor and we made a replica of their body out of foam. And then we would sculpt in clay the suit, like the Night Owl's suit is sculpted in clay. And then we take a mold off of that. And then we can run a foam suit out of that by putting the actor's body inside the mold and then you fill in the negative space and you have that. So, on Tron we just decided we were going to do the sculpting in the computer, because we were ambitious like that. And then we would cut that digital sculpture out of a block of foam and then make the molds out of that. So we bypassed sculpting in clay by sculpting in the computer.”

T/S: Who was even doing that?

CBC: "We were crazy people! We had so many illustrators. We would draw things in Photoshop. Then we would model make them in ZBrush, and then fine tune the data in like Moto and all these crazy data programs. And then we had a company called Quantum Creation FX in Burbank that worked with some vendors to, you know, make all this happen. Then they worked with these companies that cut out the foam, then we body shopped it and then we made the molds. I mean it was insane. Even the channels where the lighting elements went in were all digitally mapped. It was phenomenal and adventures and it's a spectacle that's been unrivaled. And I think it was very warranted for the genre, and for the movie Tron itself to innovate costume technology to that level, but it was inherently flawed in some ways that we never could have anticipated having never done it before. So, there are some nuances that really I wish we had known about and could have worked out better. We could have made some things function a little bit better and fit a little bit better. And so when we went into Ender's Game I didn't want to use foam latex. I didn't want to sculpt anything. I wanted to go the other way. So on Ender's Game, the suits that we made are actually fabricated with normal pattern making and draping. The materials we used were technologically advanced. And we made materials, but the suits them self are patterned, drafted, cut, and stitched.”


Ender's Game, Costume Designer Christine Bieselin Clark

T/S: Was that an L.A. shop that did the work or did you bring a team together of your own?

CBC: "We did most of it in our department. The department started in Los Angeles and then we migrated to New Orleans. So we had a lot of in house people doing the pattern making and drafting. And then Quantum, the company I had worked with on Tron, mass-produced the suits for us. So we did a prototype in house and then they did the mass-production. There are some sculptural elements like the body armor pieces on the shoulders and the helmets- they did all of that stuff for me also. The helmets we did do exactly like Tron. We did sculpt them digitally and grow them. It's easy to do with hard stuff. The hard parts are easier to grow and 3D print than anything else, I have to say.”


T/S: Can you tell me more about making technologically advanced fabrics?

CBC: "The storyline calls for the Flash Suits, this training suit that they wear in the battle room- the silver stuff, it's interactive. It's a training device. So it actually participates with them in the room. And so it has to demonstrate an action that is part of the plot. And that sort of informed a lot of the textures that we used in it. It had to look like it could conduct some kind of electricity. So, we designed- actually I had two assistant on Ender's Game, Dorotka Sapinska and Alexandra Casey. One of them, the lovely Dorotka, she helped me do a lot of the pattern making of any fabric that we printed- you know you have to do a digital file on it first. So I would come up with the ideas, and she would help me draft all of the vector sets, and then we would communicate and work with a company called By Design that does a lot of fabric printing for us. I've worked with them a lot over the years and we did a lot of printing and laminating and dying and painting. There's probably, I would say there are seven different techniques of fabric in the one suit. And each one is a different thing, different screen-printing, and laminating, and fusing. It was wild! That suit was wild.”


Ender's Game, Costume Designer Christine Bieselin Clark

T/S: And at each stage, are you camera testing it and getting director and producer approval?

CBC: "Yeah, we have to move really expeditiously. So, the first thing that happens is I come up with what I think is a good frame work for colors and an idea of textures. And I meet with the director and production designers and the DP and producers- get everyone's input to try to streamline my first broad stroke of everything. And then based on all that feedback and what we all think will work we start running samples to do camera tests. We did probably camera tests before all of the components were kind of together.”


T/S: Are you changing major elements each round?

CBC: "No, it's all kind of an evolution. If you know that this is the texture and you want it to be silver- is it a warm silver? Is it a cool silver? Is it darker? And then you end up testing five different silvers in that texture. OK, now we have that piece. Let's move onto the next thing, and the next thing. But you have to move at the speed of light, because you're talking about sixteen weeks of prep from day one until the first day on camera. It's terrifying! And that's why you bring in like an army. I mean we had 60 something people working in the department at one point.”

And the end product is phenomenal. Christine did such a wonderful job shedding light on the process and some of the fascinating technology being developed on these types of films. This level of creativity and craftsman is truly remarkable. She was also a complete joy to talk with, animated and very giving of her time. Keep an eye on her- I'm confident we'll be seeing so much more from her in years to come.


© 2013  Joe Kucharski